A great way to structure your strength training workouts long-term is to utilize periodization.
The theory of periodization is to vary intensity, and focus, to lead up to a competitive season. Usually, an athlete will have a general conditioning phase, transitioning into a specific skills development stage, followed by their competitive season, ending with a time of recovery.
However, it need not apply just to athletes or those with plans of competing. I have used periodization in my training almost every year for over a decade, and I haven’t officially competed in any sports since I was a young child.
The simplest way to periodize a program is to merely switch up the repetitions and corresponding weight you are using every few weeks.
Week 1-3: 3 sets of 8 repetitions
Week 4-6: 3 sets of 12 repetitions
Week 7-9: 3 sets of 20 repetitions
Week 10: recovery
Obviously you’ll have to use lighter weights as you increase the repetitions but you should be able to make small increases during the weeks when the reps stay the same. Also, after your recovery week, restart this whole cycle with more weight for every exercise.
All these numbers can be varied but I find the rep range 8 to 20 suitable for the general population. After a client of mine has developed proper technique, I may bring the reps down to 5, or even below, allowing them to lift a heavier weight.
The length of time spent training a certain rep range and load can be varied. In my training, I usually add weight to my primary lifts every month and merely add a repetition or two to all my assistance movements per week.
This idea of using different weights and repetitions will help train different metabolic pathways in the body.
One to three repetitions usually corresponds to explosive power, while three to six reps will develop strength, seven to fifteen will stimulate muscle growth, known as hypertrophy, and fifteen or more reps will train endurance.
None of this is set in stone however. These numbers are based off EKG studies that show what muscle fiber types are being affected the most during a prescribed number of reps.
Skeletal muscle is made up of three different fiber types. Type I are referred to as “slow oxidative” and are activated most during aerobic or endurance exercises. Type IIA are “fast oxidative/glycolytic” that can grow large and aid in both aerobic and anaerobic activities. Finally, type IIX, “fast glycolytic”, handle explosive powerful movements and are fatigued rather quickly.
The great thing about periodization is that you get an opportunity to improve the function of all muscle fiber types throughout the course of a training cycle.
So, if you’ve hit a plateau and are uncertain where to go next, maybe try a simple restructuring of the weights, repetitions, and sets. Remember, any single, unchanging stimulus can only benefit the body for so long. Keep changing things up and track your progress so you know what’s working and what’s not!